As the name implies, the nightcap has always served as the epilogue to an evening. More often than not, that closing act is a heavy hitter—a decadent dessert-like pour or a cocktail of the strong-and-stirred variety. Today’s interpretations of the final drink of the night, however, are breaking the mold, placing a premium on comfort no matter what form the drink may take.
Indeed, the modern nightcap adheres to few hard-and-fast rules. “It can be however you want the last note of your night to go,” says Atlanta-based beverage consultant Kellie Thorn. “It can be any style you want it to be.”
For example, amid rising demand for low- and no-alcohol drinks, a gentler version of the nightcap has emerged. Instead of a stiff pour of brandy or whiskey, Thorn often turns to lower-proof stirred sherry cocktails, like her Sketches of Spain, made with local wildflower honey syrup and a half-ounce of brandy de Jerez for backbone.
At Lullaby, which recently moved into the space on New York’s Lower East Side vacated by Nitecap, co-owner and beverage director Harrison Snow sees end-of-night drinks answering a call for comfort, in multiple guises. The bar’s eponymous cocktail, the Lullaby, is a traditional boozy concoction, mixing bottled-in-bond rye with smaller amounts of sherry and Braulio amaro. Meanwhile, The Whiskey Drink, which combines oloroso sherry and citrus, is richer and more dessert-like thanks to a spoonful of mascarpone. “Dairy fits into that world of traditional nightcaps,” Snow explains. “It’s like a glass of warm milk—comforting, sedating.”
Yet, he’s also noticing that as the night wears on, much of Lullaby’s clientele reaches for “more pared-down, quicker, more convenient” pours, ranging from vermouth on tap to a cheap beer paired with a slug of amaro. “It’s right in front of you: It’s not a cocktail, but you can sip and enjoy it,” he says. “It’s a fast-casual application of a traditional nightcap.”
Elsewhere, Sharon Yeung, the Seattle-based co-proprietor of the Daijoubu pop-up bar, likewise shies away from dogmatic rules regarding what is and isn’t a nightcap. Most important, she says, is that the drink should be “whatever makes you feel good and comforted and soothed.” In her In the Name of the Moon cocktail, Yeung found inspiration in the Chinese dessert tang yuan. Typically featuring glutinous rice balls filled with black sesame simmered in a sweet ginger broth, tang yuan is often served around the Lunar New Year or other celebrations. “That’s my childhood,” Yeung says of the flavors that she translates into her drink. Warming and dessert-like, kicked up with a choice of brandy or whiskey, it hits many of the key notes for a comforting nightcap. “It’s like a Hot Toddy you can actually eat and sip.”
For the most part, the role of the nightcap remains the same as ever: to ease into the end of a night. But there has always been a contingent that uses that last drink as an excuse to prolong an evening. More than two years into the pandemic, bartenders report seeing more of that than ever.
“I don’t think people want to go home so quickly right now,” Snow posits. “We’ve been at home. We’ve been in the darkness and in our beds and cozy watching Netflix shows… I don’t think people want to be rocked to sleep right now as much as they did before the pandemic.”